Mitt Romney kills Newt Gingrich in Republican debate

David Horsey/Los Angeles Times

Mitt Romney’s aggressive performance in the Florida debates has eased the anxiety of Republican leaders who shudder at the prospect of having Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee for president.

After Gingrich, former speaker of the House, hammered the former Massachusetts governor in the South Carolina primary, many Republican members of Congress began to fear for their jobs, or at least for their chance to hold the House and take the Senate in the November election. Gingrich’s negatives are so high and his reputation for erratic behavior so big that they are convinced he could not beat President Obama and would drag down many Republican candidates with him.

Gingrich is not well-liked by many of the people he worked with in Congress. In fact, loathing may better characterize their feelings.

Ron Bonjean, a long-time aide to the Republican leadership, told CNN that folks on Capitol Hill are very nervous about Gingrich’s candidacy. “It sends a shiver down a lot of Republican spines,” Bonjean said. “You can actually feel the nervousness from Republicans around town that Gingrich could actually bring the craziness back of his speakership from the 1990s.”

The worry ranges from first-term members to veterans who served with Gingrich as he rose to power in the 1980s and '90s. According to a report in Politico, freshman House Republicans could talk about little else on a bus ride back from their caucus retreat in Baltimore last week. They have seen the polling data indicating Gingrich is disliked by suburban women – even conservatives -- and is broadly unpopular in the Northeast.

GOP elected officials are largely voicing their fears off the record, but Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a Romney backer, was willing to go public with his concerns. Control of the House and Senate “is going to come down to a few races in tight places,” Chaffetz told Politico, “and you don’t want to have somebody on the ballot who is the laughingstock of the country.

Gingrich is proud to be a man of big ideas and bold rhetoric, and it was his intelligence and combativeness that was attractive to the 40% of Republican voters in South Carolina who cast their ballots for him. But Republican officials in Washington see his big ideas and bold talk as evidence of a boundless ego and unscrupulous character. 

Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” served with Gingrich in the House. He has made it abundantly clear he cannot stand the guy. 

“He is a bad person when it comes to demonizing opponents,” Scarborough said on a recent show. “When he puts on his political helmet, he is a terrible person…. The Republicans I talk to say he cannot win the nomination at any cost. He will destroy the party. He will reelect Barack Obama and we’ll be ruined.”

Those are harsh words to aim at a 68-year-old grandfather. Of course, it was Gingrich who, in his pre-grandfatherly days, taught Republicans how to talk like that. As Gingrich was plotting the eventual Republican takeover of the House, he gave his colleagues a manual of florid words and phrases to be employed when attacking the opposition – the sort of words and phrases he uses now to describe Obama, “the most radical president in our lifetime."

Now, those old colleagues are aiming the tough language at him – “erratic, abrasive, undisciplined, unreliable, unhinged, unethical, mired in scandal, consummate D.C. insider.” Of course, if Romney doesn’t stop Gingrich in Florida and the Republican leaders’ worst fears come true, their words will come back to haunt them when delighted Democrats quote them in the fall campaign.